Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 1974
Ah, 1974! Another shit show year from our glorious past! Of course, that applied to almost everything but the music. The music was incredible. It was the 70s, after all. I was on the verge of something in 1974, but I'm not sure exactly what. I was mostly into baseball cards at this point, but I was starting to play some of my sister's 8-tracks out of curiosity. The seeds were being sown. These are the songs, for better or worse, that took root. Remember the rules: one song per artist maximum, listed in descending order for drama.
26 “Stranded in the Jungle” / The New York Dolls
Script pitch: Man escapes cannibals, hitches a ride to the U.S. on the back of a whale, and arrives just in time to stop his girl from running off with another man. That's gold baby! Sure, you’ve heard the same plot a million times before, but it’s never been in such capable hands, hands with painted fingernails I may add, like this before. Originally done doo-wop-style by the Cadets, the Dolls’ campy, glammed-up version is an absolute potboiler and rib-tickler. There were a lot of killer ballads in 1974, including “Help Me” by Joni Mitchell and “You Are So Beautiful” by Joe Cocker, but in the end, this song wins because we needed a fun track to kick off our tribute to 1974. And if you wanted a guaranteed blast in the early 70s, all you had to do was find out where the Dolls were playing that night.
25 “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” / Ann Peebles
It makes me physically ill that the highest charting version of this song to date is the schmaltzy 80's cover murdered by English pop darling Paul Young. If you want to set the Earth back on its axis again, seek out Ann Peebles’ supreme original from 1974’s landmark soul record I Can’t Stand the Rain. Actually, it’s somewhat of a shock to me that the title track isn’t sitting on this mixtape, as it is one of the most legendary songs in the history of Memphis’s second-most vaunted soul label, Hi Records. But so it goes when there are two drop-dead classics on the same record. Rule are rules. I chose this song because there’s something positively sinister and empowering about Ann’s vocals on this cut. She’s done with her man playing around on the side, doing whatever he wants, and she’s determined to put an end to it all in glorious fashion. But we don’t get to see the specifics of her plan in action, unfortunately. It’s safe to say that it’s not going to be pretty. Interestingly, some have treated the song as an allegory for race relations in America and that the “playhouse” in question is white America. I don’t know for sure if that was indeed the intent, but if so, it couldn’t be a better time to bring the song back to the people once and for all.
24 “I Can Help” / Billy Swan
It’s an all skate! If you didn’t grow up in the 1970s (what a shame for you) there was a time when roller skating was a big deal. Think rollerblades with training wheels for a reference point. Billy Swan’s #1 hit “I Can Help” tapped into that craze by firing up the multi-color strobes, turning on the giant mirrorball, and then adding a swirling organ intro worthy of a carnival merry-go-round. If the song just looped the first 18-seconds over and over, it would’ve been a roller skating staple. But that’s not how songs work, so he added some lyrics. And what better lyrics for a roller rink than “I got two strong arms, let me help”? It’s a built-in excuse to get closer to your chosen partner by giving the novice skater a helping hand (around the waist, shoulder, ass, whatever the case may be). At one point, Billy makes it more than a little creepy by suddenly singing “If your child needs a daddy, I can help.” Uh, Billy, we’re just holding hands at the roller rink, possibly sharing a slushy if you're lucky. So pull back a bit, would you?
23 “Nothing from Nothing” / Billy Preston
22 “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” / Stevie Wonder
If my high school math classes were as funky as Billy Preston’s “Nothing from Nothing” perhaps I’d have become an accountant or bank teller. His love equation is quite simple when you buckle down and crunch the numbers. You gotta give something to get something. And if you ain’t got nothin’, you ain’t gonna get nothing in return. I’ve double-checked the math and he’s got a point.
The same concept, as luck would have it, applies to politics, too, as Stevie Wonder points out in this killer single. You can play us the same old song and make the same old promises to get elected, but until you actually do something for us, expect nothing in return. No actions, no vote.
21 "The Thrill of It All" / Roxy Music
This song, from Roxy Music’s titillatingly-covered Country Life LP, is approaching its 50th birthday and somehow it still sounds ahead of its time. It certainly doesn’t sound like anything else from 1974, that’s for sure. And its production time stamp easily rules out 1984 as well (thank goodness). The 90s perhaps? You’re kidding me, right? It was way too debonair for the flannel-clad alternative age. Too hip for the aughts and 10s, as well. Maybe when we arrive in 2024 (and not a moment too soon), perhaps then its true time will come once and for all. As this song wisely states, “Strange ideas mature with age.” In the end, it doesn’t matter when you listen to it—it will always sound like it's playing in a singular dimension all its own.
20 "Rikki Don’t Lose That Number" / Steely Dan
I admit I never thought of giving a girl my phone number even once during my formative years. That’s not how it was done where I came from. And having the hubris to suggest she mail my phone number in a letter to herself for safe keeping in case she changes her mind some day? In no fantasy world of mine would that work. But I wasn’t in Steely Dan either, the ultimate in pop sophistication at the time. There really wasn’t any band that sounded anything like them, so I'm sure they seemed downright exotic to some, which surely helped with the ladies. You’ve got to have a measure of confidence to play poppy light jazz and expect it to get on the radio in the first place. If that worked, why wouldn’t you expect a girl to ship off your phone number in a SASE as well? Yes, they may have ripped the intro to this song straight from Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” (give it a quick stream and you’ll hear it), but this little heartbreaker is your instant ticket to the hippest booth in the nightclub. So relax for a while. Have a cocktail. Mingle.
19 "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)" / Randy Newman
We especially favor songs written long ago that sound eerily appropriate in modern times. This is a perfect example. One particularly prescient moment…
Maybe you’re cheatin’
Maybe you’re lyin’
Maybe you have lost your mind
Maybe you only think about yourself
18 “Rebel Rebel” / David Bowie
If a single song can sum up a decade, this might be a good choice to represent the 1970s. David Bowie, in many ways, was the defining artist of the decade—the ultimate shape-shifter and an icon for liberated youth everywhere. As advertised, the song is non-stop rebellion—do what you want, when you want, dressed how you want, with whomever you want. If there's a song that better synthesizes the teeming hormones of rock and roll music, still itself a precocious teenager at this point, it's this one. The opening riff announces that the parental-imposed exile is over, whether they know it or not, so look out world, here we come.
17 "Chelsea Hotel #2" / Leonard Cohen
This song chronicles the blowjob heard 'round the world. Janis Joplin would surely have let loose one of her whiskey-soaked cackles if she knew Cohen had converted their afternoon dalliance at New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel into such languorous poetry. Favorite line: “You told me again you preferred handsome men / But for me you would make an exception.”
16 “Angel from Montgomery” / Bonnie Raitt
You know it’s a John Prine song when you hear one isolated set of lyrics and you immediately want to pause time and think about them for a long while before moving on.
I am an old woman
Named after my mother
My old man is another
Child that’s grown old
What’s miraculous is that Raitt, a 25-year-old at the time, somehow makes the song her own despite that opening line, sung from the perspective of a worn down senior citizen. You never think twice about it. That’s how mature her talent was at the time. And ever since, the song has been entrusted to her able voice.
15 “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” / Tom Waits
14 “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” / Richard and Linda Thompson
Two completely different characters singing the same basic song, perhaps on different sides of the city, desperately needing to blow off some steam after a long work week. Perhaps they’ll meet up at some point? For some reason, however, it doesn’t sound like they’re going to find what they need.
13 “Black Water” / The Doobie Brothers
The perfect front-porch folk song for a hot, humid August evening somewhere in the deep south. That it probably cost about a million dollars to record in some posh L.A. recording studio is beside the point. Sign me up for the pre-Michael McDonald era of the Doobies any day.
12 “Deuce” / Kiss
This is proof that songs don’t need to have good lyrics to achieve greatness (“Get up and get your grandma outta here!”). Nobody, not even Gene Simmons, knows for sure what “You know your man is workin’ hard / He’s worth a deuce” means. I spent some time on a Kiss chat room (not recommended) and the speculation on what “deuce” means includes, but is not limited to, the following: blow job, shit (aka "dropping a deuce"), two girls at once, sex, anal, back rub, half ounce of cocaine, sex twice in one night, and a much maligned theory that the man is “worth twice as much as his girlfriend because he works all day.” Later, Gene chimed in and settled it once and for all, “Lyrically, I had no idea what I was talking about. Sometimes stuff means a lot, sometimes it means nothing.” Either way, the song works because it just plain pushes forward unrelentingly. And the more I listen to it, the more I believe Gene’s claim that the opening riff is the Rolling Stones riff from “Bitch” played backwards. And at this point, why not?
11 “Fox on the Run” / Sweet
Lyrics of substance were clearly optional in the mid-70s. It was all about a monster chorus loaded with bombast and panache. So just enjoy the madcap, double-synth "bird whistle" opening seconds and then skip to the triumphant hook that celebrates (or dismisses) one of the band's many groupies. Penny Lane would either be appalled or delighted, I'm not sure. But she would at the very least go home with her sweet tooth more than satisfied.
10 “Take Me to the River” / Al Green
"And if you get lost, come on home to Green River"
-Creedence Clearwater Revival
It’s a classic struggle between the love of a woman and the love of a God. You can read all you want into the lyrics, but it played out in real life over the next few years of Al’s life. The Lord won, but Al soon discovered that one can have both and still be happy. Heavy.
9 “When Will I Be Loved” / Linda Ronstadt
This song almost makes heartbreak palatable. It’s a rousing two-minute anthem for anyone suffering from a love hangover. And by the sound of the soaring harmonies in its chorus, the old phrase misery loves company seems to be dead-on here.
8 “Waterloo” / Abba
If some obscure Swedish pop band released something like this in 2020, music web sites like Pitchfork would spew enough ejaculate to fill Lake Michigan.
7 "Tell Me Something Good" / Rufus & Chaka Khan
6 “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On” / Funkadelic
As with 2020, the year 1974 was not a great one for America. We were still in Vietnam, the fucking President had to resign in disgrace (hint), and Ryan Seacrest was born. Thankfully, it did leave us some nasty funk jams to help us forget such horrors for a few minutes at a time. We all needed to be told something good for once (sound familiar?) and Rufus and Chaka were showing us the way.
Funkadelic had our back, too, “Music is designed to free your funky mind / We have come to help you cope.” Mission accomplished on both fronts.
5 “Before the Deluge” / Jackson Browne
Jackson Browne has always been a step ahead of the pack when it comes to addressing the major social and political issues of our time. “Before the Deluge” is an environmental anthem that asks some tough questions that have dire potential consequences if not answered correctly. What is the price of our so-called “progress”? Does it require us to ignore our responsibility to coming generations? We tend to play the short game in our society, especially when considering our environmental impact. Ideals are often the first thing to be compromised in trade for luxury and convenience. But “Before the Deluge” informs us that even though some choose the “live for the moment” approach, there are also those fighting for a future they will never see. And the chorus is a hopeful prayer that we all see the light before it’s too late.
4 “Rock the Boat” / Hues Corporation
I implore you to heed the following advice very closely, especially if you’ve got the notion, because things are about to get deceptively complicated.
1) Do not rock the boat.
2) Do not tip the boat over.
It sounds easier than it appears, trust me. If you're like me, you appreciate a song that clings to one running analogy like a life preserver in a raging ocean. If you’ve underestimated the catchiness of this song, forgive yourself and focus, now is your time to bring your ship back into the harbor. Dock your boat, dock your boat baby and listen. Three-minutes is all I ask.
3 “Sweet Home Alabama” / Lynyrd Skynyrd
I know what you’re saying. There are other Skynyrd songs you like better that are way less obvious than this old warhorse. Second Helping (a great title for a sophomore album) had some kylyr Skynyrd on it like “Workin’ for MCA” and “Call Me the Breeze,” not to mention “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” but remember this one thing if nothing else. At one point in our existence on this planet, let’s say April 1974, we were hearing the opening riff of this song for the first time. And then, like now, the song sounded like it was pre-written in the stars floating above Alabama waiting for a worthy band to channel it’s glory for evermore.
2 “Killer Queen” / Queen
There have been a bunch of rock songs about prostitutes over the years, but if you had to choose one to spend the night with, Queen’s “Killer Queen” tops the short list (Jethro Tull’s “Cross-Eyed Mary” ranks last). Everything comes with a price, of course, but Moet et Chandon, caviar & cigarettes are on offer to distinguished paying guests (references include Khrushchev and JFK). In return, you get a finishing school graduate (etiquette, discretion, eloquence) who is also “extraordinarily nice.” (That last one is optional for me, but whatever floats your boat.) But what you’re really paying for, let’s be honest, is saved for the chorus, “Gunpowder, gelatine / Dynamite with a laser beam / Guaranteed to blow your mind.”* And if you want to know how she incorporates those things into your evening’s programme, you’re going to need to pay the lady first.
* “Killer Queen” wasn’t the first prostitute to guarantee results. The Who’s “Acid Queen” (from Tommy) preceded “Killer Queen” by about five years, but somehow her drug-fueled guarantee “to tear your soul apart” is substantially less appealing, borderline frightening even, so if you’re into that, good for you. But I’ll stick with a flute of fine champagne and gamble that I’ll dig the aforementioned “laser beam” treatment which I assume is related to anal play, but I could be wrong.
1 “September Gurls” / Big Star
How can I explain how a simple guitar riff can immediately put you into a completely different frame of mind? The clanging opening chords of Big Star’s power-pop masterpiece do that for me each and every time I hear them. There’s something inherently melancholy in the song’s first seven seconds that makes you stop for a moment to pull in a heavy sigh. It’s happening again. The girls of autumn are here to take you in and break your heart and by Christmas they'll be gone and there will be nothing but tears left. All of this in under three-minutes, no less. Why do we keep putting ourselves through this? The secret is all in those first few moments.
OK. That's a wrap. We'll meet again soon in another time and place, but where it will be is still to be determined. Farewell from 1974, a time just as shitty as 2020. Don't come here either.